Can activists trust the corporate media?

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 Mainstream media coverage of grassroots mobilisations in the run-up to the G20 protests in London in April seemed to follow a familiar pattern. In the weeks leading up to the summit, the press, particularly The London Paper, The Metro and other ‘free’ papers, produced a series of scare stories about bankers being urged to ‘dress down’ for fear of violent attacks (“Go to work in disguise City is told”, London Lite, 26 March 2009) and pronounced that hordes of ‘international anarchists’ were converging on The City to wreak havoc.

The tabloids were, as usual, searching for the ‘organisers’ of the protests and focusing on their personal lives, denigrating the issues they sought to highlight (“G20 protest organiser is former girlfriend of 007 Daniel Craig”, Daily Mail, 29 March 2009). Then came the totemic soundbite, or prophecy, depending upon who one talks to, from Superintendent David Hartshorn, head of the Metropolitan Police’s Public Order Unit who was quoted as saying the police were preparing for a “summer of rage” - a phrase that is widely believed to have originated from activists. All of this, unsurprisingly, served to justify a massive, expensive and violent police operation around the G20.
Thursday’s papers similarly focused on the “violence” of the demonstrators. The death of Ian Tomlinson was reported as having resulted from heart failure and the police circulated a false story about police medics being attacked by protesters while trying to treat Mr Tomlinson. This fallacy, syndicated throughout the main tabloids and broadsheets, went largely unquestioned until a week later, when video footage proving that Tomlinson’s death was caused by deliberate police violence was released by the Guardian and, later, Channel 4 corroborating eye witness statements collected in the days following Ian Tomlinson’s death. During the Smash EDO’s ‘Mayday! Mayday!’ demonstration in May 2009, a similar unsubstantiated story of attacks on ambulance staff made its way to The Sun from an “anonymous police source”. Elsewhere the press ran xenophobic stories about international activist troublemakers, with The London Paper, for example, reporting that “French, German and Polish accents were heard” at police lines in Threadneedle Street.

This pro-police media coverage on the Wednesday actually facilitated, or at least justified, another day of repression. On Thursday, the police, driving new military-style vehicles, illegally detained hundreds of people at G20 convergence centres in Whitechapel and Earl Street; issued a Section 14 order against a group of journalists trying to document police actions; and violently moved protesters attempting to hold a vigil for Ian Tomlinson at the Bank of England.

However, following the release of footage of Tomlinson’s death and as the stories of violent policing at the G20 gradually began to leak into the media, a perceptible, if short-lived and limited, change seemed to occur in the mainstream media’s willingness to voice a critical attitude to the policing of dissent. Suddenly stories that would have been very unlikely to be covered in the past began finding their way onto the front pages. For instance, the ‘pre-emptive arrest’ of 114 people allegedly planning to demonstrate at the Ratcliffe-on-Soar power plant was reported widely as a threat to civil liberties. Similarly, a report into the policing of the Camp for Climate Action at Kingsnorth in Summer 2008 spawned a rash of press stories criticising policing of protests.

Of course, this increase in press stories documenting police repression does not represent an increase in police violence. Rather, the extreme visibility of police brutality at G20 protests (temporarily) facilitated and made acceptable press criticism of the police. As one journalist put it, newspaper editors gradually became “more receptive to critical stories” after the death of Ian Tomlinson. It’s not that ignorant editors were suddenly made aware of police repression after the G20. Journalists, particularly freelance journalists, have been decrying police violence for years. In September 2008 the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) released a film, ‘Press Freedom, “Collateral Damage”’, showing assaults and the obstruction of journalists by the police at mass mobilistions in the UK. However, mainstream editors, anxious to keep a working relationship with the police who mediate their access to most major stories, have been acting largely as political censors. After the G20, the dams seemed to have cracked and the steady flow of stories critical of protest policing led to an atmosphere where criticism became acceptable.

But do these cracks represent a sea change in the mainstream media’s attitude towards grassroots mobilisations? The answer is probably no. There are occasionally periods when corporate/mainstream reporting of mass protests has not followed the typical pattern. Examples include the coverage of the anti-war demonstrations in the run-up to the 2003 war on Iraq and the positive coverage of the environmental movement in the run-up to the 2006 Camp for Climate Action near Heathrow. These intervals of positive coverage, however, are soon replaced by ‘business as usual’ in the press. The negative coverage that the Calais No Border Camp and other recent mobilisations have received only confirm this.

Of course, there are a few radical voices working for certain papers or TV channels and, of course, there will always be occasional sympathetic stories, but the truth of the matter is that, by and large, the mainstream media is persistently complicit in promulgating the status quo and the authorities’ line. Any campaign or activist ‘press group’ who has dealt with mainstream media knows very well that, unless they provide some sensationalist hook, such as a violent clash with police or a disruption of public services, their press releases are likely to be ignored by news desks. Such ‘hooks’ often serve to present activists and actions in the traditional light preferred by the corporate/mainstream media when covering grassroots campaigns and protests: as abnormal incidents that disturb the normal and unchanging course of events.

Moreover, in this age of lackadaisical journalism, the majority of ‘reporting’ has become a mere mirroring of public relations exercises: most of the information found in today’s news reports is derived from press releases by the police, state agencies and public relations companies. One should also not forget that most mainstream media outlets are owned by corporations with their own political agendas and are dependent on corporate sponsorship. Like other companies, their primary goal is to maximise profits for their shareholders. It could be argued that the occasional positive attitude in the mainstream media towards grassroots activism has something to do with the proliferation of alternative media sources, where alternative, dissident views can be found. However, if we are to truly control the information propagated by grassroots activists we cannot expect to achieve this by relying on the corporate media.

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